July recap: United States

By Luisa Kenausis, Scoville Fellow

Each week, we review the news that might have gotten missed in other nuclear headlines. Here’s a recap of what happened in July.

Pentagon & Defense Spending

U.S. Air Force conducts non-nuclear drop tests of B61-12 gravity bomb from B-2A stealth bomber

On June 29, a press release by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced that the NNSA and the U.S. Air Force completed two successful non-nuclear flight tests of the B61-12 gravity bomb using a B-2A Spirit Bomber aircraft earlier in June. The tests were conducted on June 9 at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada.

The tests consisted of releasing a B61-12 non-nuclear test assembly from a B-2A plane. According to the press release, the tests were performed to evaluate the B-2A bomber’s ability to deliver the weapon and to test the non-nuclear functions of the warhead. These were the first end-to-end qualification flight tests for the B61-12 warhead that used a B-2A bomber.

The tests are also one aspect of the B61-12 Life Extension Program, which the Government Accountability Office recently noted could cost up to $10 billion by its completion. The NNSA officially estimates that the life extension program will cost $7.6 billion.


Congress poised to authorize $65 million to develop a low-yield submarine-launched nuclear capability

Last week, the House and Senate came together in conference on the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defense authorization bill. Included in the 2,500-page conference report is an authorization of $65 million for the development and construction of a low-yield warhead modification for a submarine-launched ballistic missile, in line with the requirement for such a weapon asserted in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. The $65 million figure is not a surprise, since it is consistent with both the House and Senate versions of the bill prior to conference.

The conference report for the FY 2019 NDAA includes a few other provisions related to the new low-yield submarine-launched nuclear capability. The bill would prevent the Secretary of Energy from reallocating funding to begin a new program to develop or modify nuclear warheads, but it also alters a 2004 amendment to a law requiring special Congressional authorization to develop new low-yield nuclear weapons. Instead, the necessary authorization for low-yield weapons will be similar to the authorization required for all other nuclear weapons.

For a more comprehensive look at the nuclear-related provisions in the FY 2019 NDAA conference report, please see our analysis released last week.


U.S. Strategic Command now responsible for nuclear command and control

In a change from previous policy, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command will now be the individual responsible for the nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) systems of the United States. The decision, announced in late July, comes at the end of a months-long review of how oversight of the NC3 systems and operations could be reorganized.

The review was ordered by Defense Secretary Mattis after his visit to STRATCOM last year. During that visit, Secretary Mattis was told by STRATCOM commander Gen. John Hyten that a “committee” of people was responsible for the nation’s critical NC3 systems. According to Gen. Hyten, Secretary Mattis expressed dissatisfaction with the existing structure and said he wanted “the commander in charge” of NC3. Mattis was reportedly concerned that the “committee” system overseeing NC3 did not have a cohesive governance structure and was not under a single chain of command.


U.S. to upgrade missile defense systems in Asia; China, Russia feel threatened

A mid-July article in the South China Morning Post highlighted an assessment by certain military analysts that U.S. missile defense improvements in Asia could target Chinese and Russian missiles. The report comes about a month after the Pentagon announced that it would move forward with making improvements to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD), deployed by the United States in South Korea last year.

The THAAD missile defense system in South Korea was deployed to counter a potential strike from North Korea, but its deployment has increased tensions with other U.S. rivals in the region. In particular, China reportedly sees itself as being targeted by the THAAD deployment and subsequent improvements, because the missile defense system is capable of tracking Chinese ballistic missile launches within its operational range.

According to a Hong Kong-based military commentator quoted in the South China Morning Post article, the recently announced improvements to THAAD will extend the system’s operational range from 200 km to 800 km, putting much of northern China within the system’s reach. Another analyst quoted in the article argues that the planned improvements appear to effectively serve the U.S. strategic interest by better containing China, but offer little improvement to South Korean security.

South Korea is not the only East Asian country seeking to house American missile defense systems on its territory. Japan is planning to purchase advanced Aegis Ashore radar systems from the United States for its multibillion-dollar missile defense system, planned to be deployed in 2023.

A July 23 article in Newsweek highlights Russian discontent with the deployment of U.S. missile defense systems in South Korea and Japan, with a Russian official going so far as to threaten “some retaliatory measures” for the systems’ deployment.


Bonus: Congressional Research Service writes primer for upcoming Pentagon audit

For the first time ever, the entire Department of Defense will be undergoing an audit in fiscal year 2018. To help members of Congress understand the audit process, the Congressional Research Service has authored a useful two-page primer on the subject. If you follow defense spending at all, it’s absolutely worth checking out.


National Labs & Department of Energy

Congress considered shifting National Nuclear Security Administration out of Energy Department—but didn’t

Last week, media reports began highlighting a controversial provision in the Senate version of the FY 2019 NDAA that could have eliminated direct Cabinet oversight over the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The provision, proposed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, would have shifted the NNSA out of the direct control of the Energy Department, empowering the administration to act more or less independently and without a Cabinet-level supervisor in the form of the energy secretary. The Senate committee report pointed to Department of Energy organizational issues leading to weak accountability in the Energy-run administration as justification for the change.

The White House was sharply critical of the proposed reorganization, and senior lawmakers  of both parties were opposed to the measure, according to media reports. The provision was dropped from the NDAA during the conference process last week, so the NNSA is staying under Energy Department control.


Trump administration takes steps to limit oversight of high-risk nuclear facilities

A detailed report in the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper has highlighted a little-reported move by the Trump administration to potentially weaken independent oversight of some of the most high-risk defense nuclear facilities in the United States. The news report points to a mid-May directive published by the Department of Energy regarding the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), which makes some meaningful changes that may hinder how the safety board can perform its duty of overseeing the safety of U.S. defense nuclear facilities.

Specifically, the May 2018 directive allows for sensitive information to be withheld from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, and it imposes new bureaucratic and legal hurdles that may make it more cumbersome for members of the DNFSB to perform their safety oversight duties. Prior to the new directive, the DNFSB had “largely unfettered accesses” to U.S. nuclear weapons complexes (minus access to the nuclear weapons themselves), according to the news report.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board was formed in 1988. Although the board does not have regulatory power, all of its safety recommendations spanning from 1988 to this year have been adopted by the energy secretary. However, the board has not made new recommendations since 2015. The newspaper report characterizes the order issued in May as part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to slow or stop the work done by scientific, advisory, and safety oversight boards across the government, ostensibly with the goal of increasing efficiency and cutting costs.


Now on YouTube: National lab releases over 250 videos of nuclear explosions

Looking for something new to binge-watch? You’re in luck. In early July, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory uploaded over 250 newly-released videos of nuclear bomb explosions. Digitizing and publicly releasing footage, which was recorded over the course of 210 nuclear tests conducted by the United States, is one aspect of Livermore’s work relating to the American nuclear stockpile. These videos may not be the most entertaining thing on YouTube, but they’re certainly interesting enough to be worth your time — and more importantly, they’re a visceral reminder of the horrific destructive power of these weapons.